Last week, we talked about “chart crimes“. Often these are charts that poorly constructed because the authors have been fooled by correlations or invalid comparisons. These are naive but honest. Then there are charts that use sleight of hand to nudge a conclusion. This author has an axe to grind.
This week, we will discover the literary version of chart crimes. It’s what Cedric Chin simply calls “sounding insightful”. It’s an approach honed in the internet tournament for attention. Since desire is the only barrier to publishing online we are witnessing “an arms race in writing. The best online writers are able to make something sound insightful — regardless of whether it’s true, or whether it’s useful.”
This isn’t some evil conspiracy. ‘Writers optimizing to produce insight porn to grab attention’ sounds nefarious, but it’s really more like ‘writers responding to the incentives of the social internet’ — a simple side effect of the attention economy.
My own feeling is that the overlap between universally “good writing” and “optimizing for attention” is much higher than “good writing” and “being right about what you are writing about”. I’m sure there’s some mix of practice, talent, and writing ed that can make you a good writer. But I’m not sure how correlated any of that is with having accurate or well-reasoned thoughts.
A bad writer with bad takes is harmless. Nobody finds them. A bad writer with good takes needs an agent. A good writer with bad takes is hard to detect for 2 reasons:
1. Part of good writing is being effectively persuasive. A good writer has you in a spell.
2. There are elements common to all good writing so you cannot distinguish good takes from bad takes based on style.
Ced refers to some of these common elements as “tricks”.
Here’s 2 familiar ones:
- Use a story.
I started this piece with a story. Preferably from a historical period that the reader isn’t familiar with.
- Repackage obvious truths and sprinkle them over the course of an essay
Clichés can thus be repackaged to sound insightful. This is a useful trick because a) clichés are often truths the reader already agrees with, and b) whatever sounds insightful will keep the reader going.
Usefulness Separates Infotainment From Scholarship
Ced warns that what sounds insightful isn’t always true or useful. Some excerpts:
- [Venkat] Rao’s piece is not ok if your goal is to read for career reasons. But it’s ok if your goal is to read for entertainment. It’s ok because Rao’s goal is to attract eyeballs, not create better business leaders. And his writing is so good most people will forgive him for it.
- As a writer, I admire what he’s done. But as a business person, nearly everything that [Dave] Perell says in the piece about business is subtly wrong — enough to make me treat his essay as entertainment, not education.
- Writers are often seen as smarter because good writers today are trained to optimize for sounding insightful. This bleeds over into reader perception. I think that whether a writer sounds smart or a piece sounds sophisticated shouldn’t affect you if your goal is to put things you read to practice. The questions remain the same: “Is this person believable? How likely is this going to be useful? And what’s the cheapest way to find out?”
Clear Thoughts Do Not Equal Correct Thoughts
Ced concludes his post:
A year ago I wrote Writing Doesn’t Make You a Genius. I noticed that people tend to assume good writers are smarter than they actually are. I argued that this was mistaken — that writers sound smarter on paper because the act of writing forces them to clarify their ideas.
But now I have another reason. Writers are often seen as smarter because good writers today are trained to optimize for sounding insightful. This bleeds over into reader perception.
My Own Reconciliation My feeling is the usefulness of writing comes in 2 forms:
- Form 1: The writing helps you make better decisions or predictions.
- Form 2: The writing is useful for entertaining or provoking you. If a writer is wrong in interesting ways their work is still useful.
The most common failure is to incorrectly label a Form 2 piece as Form 1. If all you ever read is Malcolm Gladwell or self-help you might never know the difference.
For a fuller discussion, please check out Ced’s Beware What Sounds Insightful (Link)